Monday, January 3, 2011

Two Guys, a Girl, No Condoms and a Bicycle Seat

A while ago I joked on Twitter that if I were to ever write an essay on French New Wave cinema I'd title it "Two Guys, a Girl, No Condoms and a Bicycle Seat: An Essay on the French New Wave"; Jean-Luc Godard says all you need is a girl and a gun, well, I like my summary better. My experience with the movement is limited, but it's one I have never been able to fully latch onto. I'm not even that keen on François Truffaut's The 400 Blows to be brutally honest, so it was with trepidation that I came to Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless (or, At the End of Breath for a more literal translation of its French title À bout de souffle - a title that has intrigued me for as long as I can remember).

All it was missing was the bicycle seat!

I have been well aware that Breathless is one of those "important" movies that I am "supposed" to like, but if ever my eclectic movie tastes raise their eyebrows at a challenge it's with an important movie I am supposed to like. Having now watched it I can say it lived up entirely to my expectations. But, then again, how could my expectations have been high when I read junk like this from 1001 Films You Must See Before You Die (2nd edition with Marion Crane on the cover).

Likewise, filming indoors in close quarters led to a new form of cinematic contemplation: the "visual study," in which a sequence of just slightly different views offers a cubist mosaic of the many moods and aspects of these extraordinary star presences.

Honestly, what on Earth does any of that mean? Same can be said for the film, really. What am I missing here? To me it felt like 87 minutes of people - not particularly nice ones, either - doing stuff of no particular interest, all based around the loosest of plots as they recite dialogue as if reading out of a supermarket catalogue. Perhaps my lack of knowledge regarding France at the time plays some part in my feelings here? Perhaps many people who do watch this film see it through the eyes of what it said about France in 1960 and how the world collectively views it. I did find it amusing when the character of "Parvulesco" - an author that Jean Seberg's "Patricia" interviews - says France is a nation of prudes, which is certainly not the image one has of France, is it?

I will grant the film several considerations, however. I can accept that Godard was pushing cinema's boundaries with cinematographer Raoul Coutard and editors Cécile Decugis and Lila Herman. Through his use of continuous takes and subsequent jump cut editing there are some moments in here that are beautifully made. I particularly liked the nighttime work, the cinema escape and that final tracking shot of Jean-Paul Belmondo's "Michel" running down the Parisian street. Also, there is certainly something about Jean Seberg's face is captivating at times, with that pixie haircut and the way her voice flirts between her American and French accents so dramatically.

Still, then there's the rest of it. I had a hard time looking past the character of Michel, a vile piece of work that one is. Why am I meant to care about this guy? Am I even meant to care about him at all? Or her for that matter. Seberg's Patricia seems to come off as smart at first, a breath of fresh air as an independent woman and journalist, but gets progressively more stupid the longer the film goes. And, worse still, I can't figure out her motivation for any of her actions. She, and the film, are so vague. I felt there wasn't any context to any of what happened. Why does Patricia fall into the trap of helping Michel? No context whatsoever. Or, none that I could see. Stuff happens, that's about it. Characters flutter in and out, they say and do things that have no reason and entire scenes plod along leading the film nowhere fast. I hardly need exposition in every scene, but some sense of purpose would be good. The opening scenes with the police shooting feel so poorly staged and are given no dramatic heft whatsoever. Or is the point that they look like an amateur play? Or is the point that there's meant to be be no point? Even if it is the point, it's one I don't care for.

How about the way these characters talk? Consistently talking about everything and yet nothing at the same time. At times sounding like that book extract up there and yet being about something of no worth. The way these actors speak their lines, there was just nothing there - like reading cue-cards. It certainly doesn't help that the very distinctive post-production dialogue/sound design of the time isn't one I've ever been a fan of. So completely un-natural, especially for a film that, visually, seems to be aiming for a more natural tone.

Someone - ahem, Dame James - brought it up on Twitter that it's curious I don't like this and yet do like Terrence Malick. As I watched the film I actually kept thinking of Sofia Coppola's Somewhere, although I suppose Malick fits the equation also. I thought of how people say Somewhere (just as an example) is "about nothing" and with "boring characters" and I can't deny any of that, but I responded to Coppola's creation of mood and texture, her evocation of a feeling that hits me. Her mingling of image and sound with figures that, even if like nobody I know, I can still recognise as actual human beings that could exist. That was, I think, what Coppola was trying to achieve.

I like that this article by AO Scott, which I read after watching the film and after having written most of this blog entry, addresses my very concerns. Says Mr Scott:

A coherent plot, strong and credible emotions and motivations, convincing performances, visual continuity — all of these things are missing from “Breathless,” disregarded with a cavalier insouciance that feels like liberation. It turns out that a movie — this movie, anyway — doesn’t need any of those things, and that they might get in the way of other, more immediate pleasures. You are free, in other words, to revel in the beauty of Paris and Jean Seberg, the exquisite sangfroid of Jean-Paul Belmondo, and the restless velocity of Mr. Godard’s shooting style. And style, for those 90 minutes, is — to phrase it in the absolute, hyperbolic terms Mr. Godard has always favored — everything.

I find it interesting because I've liked many films that do just that - ignore cinematic conventions for other pleasures (condescendingly named "style over substance" films), but, I guess, as exciting as all of this was in 1960 I just don't find this particular example of it all that thrilling. Even when a film eschews traditional filmmaking and narrative tropes, it's got to have something to spark my interest and I didn't find much of it in Breathless that did so. I know many will think I'm coming at this film all wrong, but if I have to view a movie through context after context just to enjoy it then I don't think it's much of a success. And, besides, if any director would appreciate people going against the grain then I'm sure it would be Godard, no?

1 comment:

Jesue Valle said...

I too had the same reservations that you have. In my first viewing I was so excited to finally experience the film that sparked the New Wave, but when the film ended I was quite disappointed. Then I watched it again. This time, knowing that there is barely any plot to speak of, I came into the film more casually and less analytical. I enjoyed the film a lot more as I started to appreciate Godard's liberated style of filmmaking, where anything goes. The tension and the chemistry between the two leads is also more apparent on my second viewing. I recommend getting the Criterion DVD of this as it has plenty of supplements, making the film a lot more interesting, plus the packaging looks so beautiful too.